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Marianne Moore and the Crowning Curio: How a Poem Saved One of the World’s Rarest and Most Majestic Trees

“It is still leafing; still there. Mortal though.”

That a tree can save a writer’s life is already miraculous enough, but that a writer can save a tree’s life is nothing short of magical.

In 1867, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, once an American Revolution battlefield, opened its gates to a community hungry for a peaceful respite of wilderness amid the urban bustle. So intense was public enthusiasm that local residents began donating a variety of wildlife to fill the 585-acre green expanse, from ducks to deer. But the most unusual and enduring gift turned out to be a tree, donated by a man named A.G. Burgess and planted in 1872.

This was no ordinary tree. Ulmus glabra “Camperdownii,” better-known as Camperdown Elm, is a species unlike regular trees in that it cannot reproduce from a seed. The rare elm carries its irregularity on the outside — its majestic, knobby branches grow almost parallel to the ground, “weeping” down. To ameliorate its reproductive helplessness, the Camperdown Elm requires outside help — a sort of assisted grafting, be it by accident of nature or intentional human hand.

This is how the species originated in the 1830s: The head forester of the Earl of Camperdown discovered a mutant branch of a Scots Elm growing along the ground at Camperdown House in Dundee, Scotland; he decided to graft it onto an ordinary Scots Elm. The result, to which every single Camperdown Elm in the world today can be traced, was an unusual-looking tree — a sort of giant bonsai with “weeping” branches. But this ugly duckling turned out to have a secret superpower — it was immune to the disease that killed all of its cousins, the Dutch Elms, across North America.

Unlike the world’s oldest living trees, which predate our civilization by millennia, the Camperdown Elm is a curious conduit between nature and humanity: Both human-made and gloriously wild, with its barbaric-looking bark and defiant branches, it stands as a poignant metaphor for the interdependence of all beings — nowhere more so than in the story of the Brooklyn tree.

The baby Camperdown Elm shortly after it was planted in Prospect Park on an elevated mound in order to give its branches additional room to clear the ground. (Photograph: New York Public Library archives)

As excitement over the novelty of Prospect Park began dying down, the Camperdown Elm came to suffer years of neglect. Suddenly, it became more than a metaphor for impermanence and mortality — its heavy branches were weeping into the precipice of death, the public deaf to its tears.

But then, in the 1960s, it was saved by a force even more miraculous than that by which its Scottish great-great-grandfather had been born — not by a botanist or a park commissioner or a policymaker, but by a poet fifteen years the tree’s junior.

The poet was Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887–February 5, 1972), who had been elected president of New York’s Greensward Foundation — an advocacy group for public parks — in 1965. This brilliant and eccentric woman, who never married and by all accounts never fell in love, found herself enamored with the old odd-looking tree. Under the auspices of the foundation, she created a citizen group called Friends of Prospect Park, aimed at protecting the Camperdown Elm and other endangered trees in the park.

In 1967, eighty at the time and with a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, Moore penned “The Camperdown Elm” — a beautiful ode to this unusual, dignified, yet surprisingly fragile life-form of which humans are the only bastions. The poem, animated by the same impulse undergirding Hermann Hesse’s sublime meditation on what trees teach us about belonging, was included in Moore’s Complete Poems (public library).


I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
    overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.

No doubt they had seen other trees — lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.

Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
    our crowning curio.

A quarter century after a children’s book saved New York’s Little Red Lighthouse, Moore’s poem mobilized the Friends of Prospect Park to envelop the Camperdown Elm in attentive and nurturing care, which ultimately saved it. The group went on to identify and salvage other vulnerable, neglected trees throughout the park. In her will, Moore established a fund to protect Brooklyn’s beloved “crowning curio.” She died exactly one hundred years after the Camperdown Elm was planted.

Today, halfway into its second century, the Camperdown Elm’s majestic canopy is buoyed by the air of poetry and human grace. Complement its heartening story with an uncommonly beautiful Japanese pop-up book celebrating what a tree can teach us about the cycle of life and death.

Published August 13, 2015




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